President Obama may have avoided an embarrassing legislative defeat over Syria, but the debate left him weakened at a critical point in his second term, according to GOP and Democratic insiders on Capitol Hill.
In a whirlwind period for both the White House and Congress, Obama pressed for an immediate military attack against Syria before eventually asking lawmakers to delay a vote authorizing the use of force to pursue a Russian-backed diplomatic solution.
Obama’s push to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons faced stiff opposition from both lawmakers and the public and cost him in the polls.
Many on Capitol Hill say Obama squandered momentum that could have been better served on key challenges ahead.
Obama faces crucial fights over funding the federal government, raising the nation’s debt limit, turning off the next round of sequester cuts, rolling out his healthcare reforms and overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.
“It’s certainly true that [Obama] used up a lot of political capital, apparently for nothing, on the authorization push,” a senior House GOP leadership aide told the Washington Examiner.
The aide added that the Syrian standoff could still cost the president further leverage.
Secretary of State John Kerry is to begin talks with his Russian counterpart Wednesday on a plan to have Damascus turn over its chemical weapons to international inspectors, but the prospects for a deal are uncertain.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday declined to lay out a timeline for talks, saying only that it would “take some time.”
"I think the bigger effect is still not known,” said the GOP aide. “If somehow the Russians do help get rid of the [Syrian] regime’s chemical weapons, the president will come out fine. But if Putin and Assad just toy with him for the next month, there’s no doubt he will have an exceedingly weakened presidency and ability to make demands of anyone.”
National security analysts say it would be virtually impossible to ensure Assad turns over his chemical weapons amid the country’s brutal civil war. And even some White House officials have privately questioned whether they are being played by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to help facilitate the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal.
An adviser to a high-ranking Democratic senator with close ties to Obama conceded that Syria could remain a distraction as the president turns his attention to his domestic agenda.
“It doesn’t make the president’s job this fall any easier,” the aide said. “There’s not a whole lot for us to rally around at this point. Obviously, it’s not the boost the White House had hoped for.”
“Do I fear a carryover effect?” the source added. “I do.”
The Syria debate highlighted tensions between the president and Democratic lawmakers, with many of his party’s most liberal members failing to rally behind him in the foreign policy debate.
Even many from both parties who backed him on Syria suggested the president had poorly managed the effort to sway congressional support.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said he had offered to help the White House rally support on Syria and never heard back.
Many on both sides of the aisle now wonder how Obama will refine his effort to reach out to lawmakers in the domestic fights ahead.
White House officials have long scoffed at the notion that Obama could enhance his political clout by fostering better personal relationships with lawmakers. They say that a round of golf, dinner diplomacy or extensive presidential backslapping will do little to help push the president’s agenda in the GOP-controlled House.
But if Obama’s muddled Syria message proved anything, it’s that that he still doesn’t have the level of pull needed on Capitol Hill to force skittish Democrats to get in line or reachable Republicans to buck their party base.
Carney on Wednesday sidestepped questions about whether the Syria debate had weakened Obama’s standing.
“I'm not going to make a political assessment," he said.
Time is working against White House efforts to regain any leverage, though.
Congress has just six working days left in September to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded. That will coincide with the government reaching its borrowing capacity in October and a possible default on its debt.
The White House is banking that Republican infighting over government funding will aid their cause.
House leadership is pushing back a vote on keeping the government funded until next week. Many conservative lawmakers and outside groups want to use the bill to defund Obamacare. House GOP leaders, though, are trying to win votes for a plan that would fund the government through mid-December, forcing the Senate to vote first on cutting money for healthcare reform.
Carney on Wednesday warned Republicans that the White House would reject any continuing resolution to fund the federal government that sought to withhold money from Obamacare.
"We will not accept anything,” he vowed, “that defunds or delays Obamacare.”
The administration will begin enrolling consumers in its healthcare exchanges in October, and some Democrats are already concerned that a glitch-filled rollout could imperil hopes of keeping the Senate and retaking the House in 2014.
Delays to a number of key Obamacare provisions, including the employer mandate, have only emboldened Republicans who vow to press efforts to repeal or undercut the law. And polls show that the public still does not understand many features of Obamacare.
Obama will also face a difficult challenge reviving immigration reform, which stalled in the GOP-controlled House after senators approved a bipartisan bill. In his State of the Union address, Obama said immigration reform would be a key priority of his second term.